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The Mango Man Cometh (in the Cayman Islands)

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2012-05-24-mrwilly.jpg

Photography By K&S Media

We made one wrong turn, that was all. Though a small island, leave it to my sister and I to end up lost on Grand Cayman. Irritated and circling the roundabout once again, we notice a fruit truck, laden with bright orange mangoes and piles of other fruit -- a necessary diversion.

Charmaine is chatting with a local man who has stopped to buy bags of ripe mangoes from the truck -- its back doors ajar to expose mangoes arranged in neat rows on cardboard boxes, soursop and green round fruit in plastic bags. Crouched inside the truck we meet Tony Wright who proudly describes the bounty before us.

"This is all from 'Mr. Willie.' Whistling Duck is the biggest farm on the island. We have all kinds of things up there. If you have a few minutes, you have to make a stop," he explains, adding that he has helped plant hundreds of fruit trees with Mr. Willie since the 1980s.

Intrigued, and armed with directions, we decide to visit. The topography changes slightly as we drive to the north side of the island -- rocks and sand giving way to greenery. A young boy around 13 grins at us as we pull up.

"Is Mr. Willie here?" we ask, uncertain if we have found the farm. He disappears into a red truck and reemerges introducing himself as Kiernan, William "Willie" Ebanks's grandson.

As we wait for Willie, Wright who has come back up to the farm, takes us on a breakneck tour of the property. As he speaks, he picks guinep (chennette), plums, custard apples, sweetsop and starfruit handing them to us as we greedily gorge on the glorious fruits. Each tree is planted with ample room to spread.

"All this used to be cliff you know. Mr. Ebanks and I broke and crushed up all of this," Wright tells us with a decided sense of accomplishment. There are huge rocks in a cleared area of land in the distance, but even here beneath our feet the soil is gravelly -- its limestone source still apparent.

Willie is a small gentleman, with a thick Caymanian accent and soft voice. Before leaving, Wright warns,

"You're in good hands, but Mr. Ebanks could stand here all day and talk to you about mangoes." It's a friendly jibe, accompanied by an undertone of utmost respect.

Though there are hundreds of trees on the present property (Ebanks owns several plots of land) stretching for 17 acres, Willie's particular affection is for mangoes.

"We had a very unusual season because we peaked in May. Usually you can't get enough mangoes in May to eat, but two weeks ago we were picking 1500 pounds a day," Willie notes. The farm grows dozens of mango varieties including Arlien, Dot, Haden, Jakarta, Julie, Nam Doc Mai, Springfeldt, Tommy Atkins and Valencia Pride. Ebanks talks about the intricacies not only of each of the varieties, but of each tree as if they were children, each with quirks and affectations of their own.

There are two Jamaican workers washing mangoes in a bathtub -- preparing them for the market. Elsewhere, there are workers pruning trees. We stand in the shade of one of the large mango trees while Willie points to another tree a meter away telling us about the variety of mango. Slowly he inspects the fruit until he finds the perfect specimen. Then he nudges Kiernan to pull the fruit from the tree using a homemade contraption resembling a lacrosse stick. With the mango in hand he explains its taste, its stages of ripening and its foibles. It is the sort of education it would take years to amass. And so from tree to tree, the afternoon passes.

"What you'll hear from anyone from the Caribbean is that we have a wide variety of mangoes because we have a wide variety of people. Everyone brings his little thing. With all the seamen travelling all over the world, they bring back a potato or pumpkin seed, and that is how so many things appeared here," states Ebanks.

Later, as we sit with Willie back at his home with his wife Zelma Lee and their granddaughter, talking, peeling and slicing an unripe Nelson for a salt, pepper and vinegar snack for the road, we cannot help but think: We would have missed all of this were it not for a little wrong turn that we were so fortunate to make.

This was originally part of an article that first appeared in City Style and Living Magazine's Fall 2011 issue.